Sekaten is a week-long religious Islamic
festivity falling in the month of Mulud of the Javanese calendar (the
Javanese year is eleven days shorter than the Western one). Ceremonies
celebrate the birth and death of the Prophet Mohammed; and the gamelan
in Central Java takes a very special sound - a sound that is mystical
and powerful at the same time.
When Islam began to spread to Java, from the 15th
century onwards, religious leaders thought of using the familiar sound
of the gamelan to attract the people to the new faith. Thus, a special
ensemble of instruments and a particular style of music were created,
which continue to be heard nowadays. At the beginning of the Sekaten
week, from each of the two Kratons of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, the
two Gamelan Sekati are taken in procession to the Great Mosque. Here
they are played every day almost continuously from morning to night.
The two gamelans stay inside small pavilions which face one another,
and they are played alternatively - when one gamelan finishes, the
other begins. The ambience is very noisy and very crowded, as the
scene of a popular fair can be. However, the music manages to polarise
attention and, if you stand close enough, to induce a state of trance-like
rapture and spiritual reflection. The music is loud, so that people
can hear it from a distance; it has also the power to stir inner emotions
- which may be an intriguing experience for the non-Javanese.
There is a repertory of gendings for each Gamelan
Sekati, but for the Western ear it is rather difficult to distinguish
one from another. On the other hand, it is fairly easy to distinguish
one Gamelan Sekati from the other, as intonation and timbres of instruments
vary interestingly. The scale is always the seven-tone pelog.
(We briefly touched on scales and intonations of Central Javanese
gamelans in the Notes accompanying our previous CD “Classical Gendings”.)
The instruments of a Gamelan Sekati are all of the “loud” type. They
comprise the entire family of gongs
- both suspended and resting on strings in a wooden frame - the family
of sarons - bronze xylophones - and one large
barrel-shaped drum called bedug.
Not only the instruments are of the loud type - they are enormous,
more than double the size of a normal gamelan. Mallets and hammers
are consequently big and heavy, including buffalo horns weighted on
the striking head with lead. And the force used in sekaten playing
is remarkable; this is confirmed in a popular belief according to
which, in case a musician succeded in breaking one of the saron keys
while playing, he would get a reward from the Kraton.
The pieces, generally lasting from 15 to 20 minutes, have a constant
musical pattern. They start rather softly and extremely slowly, then,
at various points, pick-up speed and loudness and eventually get to
the greatest fortissimo
imaginable. After the climax, both tempo and sound subside to the
final gong strike. The energy generated during the crescendo
produces a total experience - musical, physical, spiritual. It is
also a challenge to the ears (and to microphones!), particularly if
you sit inside the pavilion. The playing is very demanding on the musicians. These are usually the best from the Kraton: they carry
out the task as a religious and honourable service. At the end of
a sekaten day these men maintain solemn postures and gratified expressions
- with eyes often closed; it would be difficult to distinguish spiritual
ecstasy from physical exhaustion.
The two sekaten gendings we hear on this CD are played on the two
Gamelan Sekati of Kraton Surakarta. First we hear Gamelan Sekati Guntur Madu ( Honeyed Thunder), then Gamelan
Sekati Guntur Sari (Essence
of Thunder). For the interested reader, the names of the two other
sekaten sets in Central Java, those of Kraton Yogyakarta, are: Gamelan
Sekati Guntur Madu - same name as the one in Surakarta
- and Gamelan Sekati Naga Wilaga
After some repeated hearings, the attentive listener will probably
take interest and pleasure in a subjective identification of the main
instruments within each piece, and also in comparing sonic qualities,
timbres, and melodic emotional impact of the two pieces. But of course
we would wish the listener to have the real experience more than anything
THE MOST ANCIENT GAMELAN MUSIC
Munggang is the name of the oldest music known in
Java. It is also the name of the “dedicated” gamelans that in kratons
and palaces play exclusively that music. The gending, as we know it
to-day, is essentially an iteration of a three-tone four-note melody
- to give an idea, something resembling the sequence
A, G#, A, F in the Western scale. It should be noted that
gending Munggang is also known as gending Lokananta
(which in Javanese means “supernaturally produced gamelan music from
origin of the music goes so far back as to be rooted in myth. The
story is told in the introduction of an old manuscript of the Yogyakarta
Kraton, Kitab Jitapsara. Both Jaap Kunst in his fundamental “Music
in Java” and Mantle Hood in his more imaginative “The Evolution of
Javanese Gamelan” refer to the story, which briefly goes as follows.
Batara Guru (Shiva), king of the gods,
needed an instrument with which he could summon the gods for consultation, or when going
into battle. He fashioned a gong and established the number and types of strokes which
would communicate to all the gods the various messages. But, as the combination of strokes
grew in number, the gods got confused and the messages misunderstood. So, Batara
Guru made a second gong with a different pitch.
Now the two gongs could be struck in alternation,
making the combinations and the corresponding messages more clearly differentiated.
But the number of messages eventually grew further, to the point
that the gods got confused again. So, Batara Guru made a third gong tuned to a third pitch.
Hence the three-toned Munggang, with its specialised use, was created.
Kunst further notes that “the
first one of its kind was called Lokananta and is said to have been
put into service in 347 A.D. The
position which it occupied in the kraton of Majapahit corresponded,
it appears, to that which is reserved to-day for the gamelans sekati
in the kratons of Central Java.”
is generally aknowledged that in the 13th century Munggang music was
used in connection with religiose Hinduism. One is led to wonder what
was the likely nature of the ancient melodies now lost to the repertory.
To-day the one known melody is played on solemn and festive occasions,
and also regularly on certain days and times in kratons and palaces.
Gending Munggang uses two great gongs (gong ageng) - an unusual feature compared
to normal gamelan music, which limits its use to one gong.
as archaic and perhaps not as revered as Munggang, the following two
gendings complete the trio of ceremonial pieces used for special occasions
or played at regular dates.
Kodok Ngorek (Croaking Frog)
iterates a two-tone three-note-and-pause melody - something like A, pause, A, G#. A third tone is heard as a constant beat, a
sort of bourdon-ostinato. Kodok Ngorek is played on weddings, birthdays,
and circumcisions in the kratons and palaces - but also as a popular
Carabalen - the meaning
of the name is uncertain, it could possibly be “in the Balinese style”
- is based on a four-tone four-note melody of the type
G, A, A#, B. A number
of versions of this gending are known and played to-day. Carabalen
may be heard at great festivities, at the entry of important guests,
and other ceremonies. In the Kraton Surakarta it accompanies the procession
that closes the Sekaten week.
three gendings may happen to be played on “normal”gamelans, but the
authentic way assumes that each gending be played on its own “dedicated”
gamelan - which would in fact comprise a reduced number of instruments
compared to a normal complete gamelan. The dedicated gamelans usually
form part of the sacred possessions - pusaka
- of kratons, palaces, and distinguished families.
Munggang, Kodok Ngorek, and Carabalen heard on this CD were recorded in the great Pendopo of Istana
(Palace) Mangkunagaran on a Saturday morning. Until recently - about
1999 - the three ceremonial gamelans were placed in one of the four
corners of the Pendopo, with three other complete gamelans occupying
the three remaining corners - which gives an idea of the size of this
outstanding example of Javanese architecture. Then the Prince Mangkunagoro
decided to relocate the ceremonial gamelans and two of the other gamelans,
leaving only the world-renowned gamelan Kanyut Mesem for playing in
the Pendopo. The reasons for this move are not reported. The consequence
- up to the Summer 2001 - is that the three Mangkunagaran gamelans
Munggang, Kodok Ngorek, and Carabalen no longer resound every Saturday
morning from 9 to 10.
Recordings, Notes, and Photographs - John Noise Manis